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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The New Normal

By Peter DeWitt — July 25, 2011 3 min read
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Dear U.S. Secretary Duncan,

A few months ago you spoke about the “New Normal.” Considering the speech was given in November of 2010, we all have had time to get used to this concept. During the speech given to the American Enterprise Institute you mentioned that educators are going to have to learn how to do more with less. Thank you for providing the speech on the U.S. Department of Education website, because it was worth reading a few times. As a former small city school teacher, I completely understand the need to do more with less. This blog focuses on the social and emotional growth of children, so I felt the need to write to you with some questions regarding your speech.

As a school principal I have seen a great deal of what you spoke about which includes teacher lay-offs, school closings, and budget deficits. With the level of funding being cut by the US Government, New York State Government (where I reside) and the implementation of a 2% tax cap, I read your speech with fervor because I wanted some quality examples of how we can best meet the needs of our children.

Many of these children have parents who have lost their jobs in the past couple of years, so they too understand how to do more with less. The new normal apparently means that we have to continue to see that for many years to come, which one way or another we will all live through.

However, some of what you spoke about was perplexing. You mentioned the i3 Grants which were given out to the most innovative ideas in education. What percent of school districts across the country received an i3 Grant? You said that only10% of schools across the US were going through the proper efficiencies to deal with their budget issues so I understand that may count in the equation.

In addition, you mentioned the Race to the Top money (RTTT). In New York State we received hundreds of millions of dollars through the RTTT competitions. Unfortunately, my school district will only see around $20,000 over a 4 year period. I understand that the grant is based on need but we do not have a fund balance anymore because New York State has asked us to pay two “one time” budget adjustment gaps over the past two years, which have costs us a few million dollars.

I understand we need to be innovative so we can get our students career and college ready. As an elementary school principal I am fortunate to have great teachers who promote learning through hands-on methods, which are also inquiry based. We have many Smartboards throughout the school and we consider ourselves fortunate. However, some of my most innovative young teachers had to be laid-off in the past two years due to budget cuts, which was hard for many of our students and parents to understand.

When you mentioned that you value early literacy and small class sizes, I was very happy. As a former elementary school teacher, I can probably speak for many primary teachers when I tell you that we have so many students enter our doors unprepared for a school day, so having high quality early literacy programs and small class sizes is beneficial.

You said, “research shows a small class size of 13 to 17 students can boost achievement. Parents, like myself, understandably like smaller classes.” Having 13 to 17 students within a classroom would certainly help ease that transition but it causes a problem for us. Unfortunately, that would mean creating new classrooms because many of us have class sizes of 20 or more. Where would you suggest we add classrooms to our school buildings to accommodate the students we will have to take out of the other classes to make smaller ones?

In closing, you ended the speech by remarking that we all have to re-evaluate how we invest in our children, which was an interesting use of words. You also said, “It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress”. I wholeheartedly agree but I feel that the US Department of Education forces us to go through a great deal of “eat-your-broccoli” type exercises that prevent us from being innovative and having educational productivity.

Thank you for your time.

Duncan, Arne (2010). The New Normal: Doing More with Less. US Department of Education

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.